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DV101: Understanding Color Correction

I was at an industry networking function this past week and had a conversation with a young woman who was interested in producing films. She had been working as a PA for about two years, and when she learned that I had previously been a cinematographer, she asked me, “Can you explain color correction to me? Does that mean that something is wrong and it has to be fixed?” Before I could even start to reply, a young man standing next to us chimed in, “That’s what happens when they shoot it wrong on set and they have to fix it in post.”

I waited for the smile to crack on his face, but when it didn’t and I realized that he was serious, I had to wonder how many people in this business don’t understand color correction.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve color correction interface

I’ll start with the basics: color correction—or, as it used to be called, color timing or grading—is not a step to correct errors. It is a requisite step in the production process—in every production process—to create a final, polished and professional presentation. To skip color correction would be similar to building a car, making the chassis and piecing together the engine, putting in the interior and all the dash components, bolting on the wheels and then skipping the paint job. You’ve got a car, but it’s unfinished. The paint job doesn’t correct any mistakes; it’s simply the final stage in the creation of the car.

Color correction starts with balancing the image. This is where some people have the mistaken belief that color correction fixes errors. The majority of balancing isn’t about fixing errors; it’s about accounting for innumerable variables within shooting limitations: changes in the light due to different time of day or different fixtures, changes in the image due to different shooting environments, or matching shots that were recorded days, weeks or even months apart.

Especially in narrative shooting, where you’re taking multiple camera setups (whether that be from one camera or many) and editing them together to create a linear whole that appears to take place in real time—although the production might have taken days or weeks to capture—balancing between shots is very important to smooth out the scene. It is the most basic task a colorist does, and it is the most complicated.

With today’s digital tools, nearly anyone can take an image, fiddle with some filters and functions and create something “cool,” but having the knowledge, experience and talent to apply that “cool” look to every other shot in a sequence, and make them seamless, is of paramount importance. Many people who are new to color correction think they can just experiment to set a look, and then copy and paste that look to the rest of the scene. Without balancing first, that approach will have disastrous results.

Red Giant Magic Bullet Colorista 2 color correction interface

The general controls over the image are blacks, mids and whites, and then red, green and blue color elements of the picture. Within each color, you can add that color, or subtract it by adding in its complementary color. For instance, if you want to make a scene cooler, you might add blue to the scene; if the scene is already too cool, you’ll reduce the blue look by adding yellow. If you adjust a color just in the blacks, it will change that color value only in the shadow areas of the image. If you change the mid range, it will change those areas that are closest to proper density—that middle gray area. If you change the whites, you will affect only the areas in the highlights of the image.

Once you’ve achieved a color balance, you can start to apply your look, the creative part of color correction. Today’s digital tools are versatile enough to take a daylight image and make it night, which happens from time to time. That’s not to say that it was a mistake by the cinematographer—sometimes the sequence of scenes might be changed in editing and what was once a day scene might now need to be a night scene. With a good colorist (and the right image), this change is entirely possible.

Setting the look is normally done with the colorist, cinematographer and director in the room. Most often, most of the look is set on location and in camera, but it is further refined in the color correction sessions. Should the look be a 1970s era feel, with high contrast and washed, faded colors? Should it be dark with reddish hues to match the alien planet where the story takes place?

Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse color correction interface

A lot of high-end digital cameras now shoot in raw mode, which means that the image recorded has a very low contrast, high dynamic range. The look that the cinematographer and director set during shooting is not recorded, but is saved as metadata in a lookup table (LUT) associated with the video. The colorist can start by applying this LUT to the footage to get the best idea of what the director and cinematographer wanted the image to look like. Without the LUT, the image will be washed, low contrast and often a sickly greenish hue.

I would always recommend that any serious project be taken to a professional, experienced colorist. Although some editors can do color correction, it’s a lot like asking a veterinarian to operate on your mom. Sure, they’re medically trained, but they are not skilled specialists in a very delicate and complicated trade.

Software like Apple’s Final Cut Pro comes bundled with some basic but pretty powerful color correction tools. I recommend using the 3-Way Color Corrector filter in FCP and experimenting a bit.

Below are some screen grabs from Final Cut featuring a shot from a project I directed called Amanda’s Game with actor Brian Glaney, shot by cinematographer Teri Segal. Although the warm, high-contrast image was our intention, I’ve changed that to a more sickly green—à la Collateral—for purposes of illustration.

Take a look at the three color spheres at the left side of the screen capture. The far left sphere represents the shadow range of the image, the middle are the mids, the right represents the highlights. Notice that each sphere has a small circle in the center: this is the color position for that range of the image. Center is a neutral position, making no change to the image. The farther away from center you drag that circle, the more drastic the color effect you’re adding.

In the final image, by adding blue/cyan into the highlights, I start to cool off those red/yellow tones. I added a moderate amount of cyan into the mids and then just a little into the blacks. The overall effect is a much cooler, paler, sickly fluorescent look.

This example represents a creative choice in postproduction, which happens from time to time, not any fault or error in photography.

Even though the tools are available inexpensively, I would still always recommend working with a professional colorist to finalize your project.